Columbian Insurance Co. of Alexandria v. Lawrence
27 U.S. 25

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Columbian Insurance Co. of Alexandria v. Lawrence, 27 U.S. 2 Pet. 25 25 (1829)

Columbian Insurance Company of Alexandria v. Lawrence

27 U.S. (2 Pet.) 25

Syllabus

It is undoubtedly true that questions respecting the admissibility of evidence, are entirely distinct from those which refer to its sufficiency or effect. They arise in different stages of the trial and cannot with strict propriety be propounded at the same time.

L. & P., at the time an insurance was made for them against loss by fire, were entitled to one-third of the property by deed, and to two-thirds as mortgagees, but one moiety of the whole was held under an agreement which had not been complied with, and which purported on its face to be void if not complied with; but the other contracting party had not declared it void, nor called for a compliance with it. L. & P. had an insurable interest in the property.

That an equitable interest may be insured is admitted, and we can perceive no reason which excludes an interest held under an executory contract. While the contract subsists, the person claiming under it has undoubtedly a substantial interest in the property. If it be destroyed, the loss, in contemplation of law, is his. If the purchase money be paid, it is his in fact. If he owes the purchase money, the property is equivalent, and is still valuable to him. The embarrassments of his affairs maybe such that his debts may absorb all his property, but this circumstance has never been considered as proving a want of interest in it. The destruction of the property is a real loss to the person in possession, who claims title under an executory contract, and the contingency that his title may be defeated by subsequent events does not prevent this loss.

The material inquiry is does the offer for insurance state truly the interest of the assured in the property to be insured? The offer describes the property as belonging to Lawrence & Poindexter, and states it afterwards to be their stone mill. It contains no qualifying terms which should lead the mind to suspect that their title was not complete and absolute. The title of the assured was subject to contingencies and was held under contracts which had become void by the nonperformance of the same. This Court is of opinion that a precarious title, depending for its continuance on events which might or might not happen, is not such a title as is described in this offer for insurance, construing the words of that offer as they are fairly to be understood.

The contract for insurance against fire is one in which the underwriter generally acts on the representation of the assured, and that representation ought consequently to be fair and to omit nothing which it is material to the underwriter to know. It may not be necessary that the person requiring insurance should state every encumbrance on his property which it might be required of him to state if it was offered for sale, but fair dealing requires that he should state

Page 27 U. S. 26

everything which might influence the mind of the underwriter in forming or declining the contract.

Generally speaking, insurances against fire are made in the confidence that the assured will use all the precautionary means to avoid the calamity insured against which would be suggested by his interest. The extent of that interest must always influence the underwriter in taking or rejecting the risk and in estimating the premium. Underwriters do not rely so much on the principles as on the interest of the assured, and it would seem therefore to be material that they should always know how far this interest is engaged in guarding the property from loss.

In all treatises on insurances and in all the cases in which the question has arisen, the principle is that a misrepresentation which is material to the risk avoids the policy.

What will not constitute a waiver of the preliminary proof of loss the assured is bound by the policy to produce.

Construction of a policy of insurance against loss by fire.

The action was brought originally, by Lawrence & Poindexter on a policy of insurance for $7,000 against fire on a mill.

The declaration, after setting out the contract of insurance, avers that the plaintiffs "were interested in and the equitable owners of the insured premises at the time the insurance was made." After stating the loss by fire on 14 February, 1824, as within the policy, there is the following averment:

"of which said loss, together with the proofs thereof in conformity with the conditions subjoined to the said policy, the defendants, on 20 February, 1824, at . . . , had due and regular notice."

Upon the trial of the general issue, verdict and judgment passed for the surviving plaintiff, Lawrence, for the whole amount of the insurance under certain instructions from the court stated in two bills of exceptions tendered by the defendants, now plaintiffs in error.

During the progress of the suit, Poindexter, one of the plaintiffs, died, and the suit instituted in their joint names was carried on in the name of the survivor for the use of his assignee.

The evidence exhibited to the jury on the part of the plaintiff showed that Lawrence & Poindexter, by their

Page 27 U. S. 27

agents, had made application in writing to the defendants for insurance in these words:

"What premium will you ask to insure the following property, belonging to Lawrence & Poindexter, for one year against loss or damage by fire on their stone mill, four stories high, covered with wood, situated on an island about one mile from Fredericksburg, in the County of Stafford? The mill called Elba; $7,000 is wanted; not within thirty yards of any other building, except a cornhouse, which is about twenty yards off."

The premium demanded was $105.

The application was made upon a printed form, of which blanks are kept at the insurance office and filled up as required. At the foot of this document was the following:

"N.B. Persons offering for insurance are requested to be particular in their descriptions, more especially of what materials the walls and roofs are constructed, &c."

The policy, an unsealed instrument, was executed in the usual form, containing the several stipulations, provisos, and exceptions usual in fire policies, and among others, the following:

"And it is understood and agreed as well by this company as by the assured named in this policy and all others who may become interested therein that this insurance is made and accepted in reference to the conditions which accompany these presents, and in every case the said conditions are to be used to explain the rights and obligations of the parties except so far forth as the policy itself expressly declares those rights and obligations."

Upon the back of this policy were printed the "Fundamental rules of the Columbian Insurance Company" and also, the "Rates of annual premiums to be paid for insurance," among which were:

"1. Persons desirous to make insurance on buildings are to state in writing the following particulars, viz., of what materials the walls and roofs of each building are constructed, as well as the construction of the buildings contiguous, thereto -- whether the same are occupied as private dwellings

Page 27 U. S. 28

or how otherwise -- where situated -- also the name or names of the present occupiers."

"Each building must be separately valued and a specified sum insured thereon, and in like manner a separate sum insured on the property contained therein."

"All manufactories which contain furnaces, kilns, stoves, ovens, or use fire heat are chargeable at additional rates."

"In the assurance of goods, wares and merchandise, the building or place, in which the same are deposited, is to be described, also whether such goods are of the kinds denominated hazardous and whether any manufactory is carried on in the premises. And if any person or persons shall insure his or their buildings or goods and shall cause the same to be described in the policy otherwise than as they really are, so as the same be charged as a lower premium than would otherwise be demanded, such insurance shall be of no force."

"2. Goods held in trust or on commission are to be insured as such, otherwise the policy will not extend to cover such property."

"9. All persons assured by this company sustaining any loss or damage by fire are forthwith to give notice to the company, and as soon as possible thereafter deliver as particular an account of their loss or damage, signed with their own hands, as the nature of the case will admit of, and make proof of the same by their oath or affirmation and by their books of accounts or other proper vouchers as shall be reasonably required, and shall procure a certificate under the hand of a magistrate or a sworn notary of the town or county in which the fire happened, not concerned in such loss directly or indirectly, importing that they are acquainted with the character and circumstances of the person or persons insured and do know or verily believe that he, she, or they really and by misfortune, without any kind of fraud or evil practice, have sustained by such fire, loss or damage to the amount therein mentioned, and until such affidavit and certificate are produced, the loss claimed shall not be payable; also, if there appears any fraud, the claimant shall forfeit

Page 27 U. S. 29

his claim to restitution or payment by virtue of his policy."

The property intended to be insured was proved to be a square building, four stories high, built of stone to the square or eaves, the roof being framed and covered entirely of wood, the two gable ends running up perpendicularly from the stone wall to the top of the roof, they being constructed of wood.

On 14 February, 1824, the property was destroyed by fire, and the following documents were given in evidence to sustain the right of the plaintiffs to demand payment of the loss, the same having been exhibited as "the preliminary proof of the loss claimed under the policy."

"Fredericksburg, February 16, 1824"

"To the president, directors, and company, of the Columbian Insurance Company of Alexandria."

"Gentlemen: We regret that we have now to inform you of the total destruction of our mill by fire on the night of the 14th inst., which was insured in your office, the particulars of which we will forward you as soon as we can prepare the necessary documents as laid down in the conditions accompanying the policy."

"LAWRENCE & POINDEXTER"

The affidavit of the said Lawrence & Poindexter, with the certificate of Murray Forbes, was annexed.

"We hereby certify that by the burning of our mill, situate on an island in the County of Stafford, about one mile from the Town of Fredericksburg and State of Virginia, called the Elba Mill, four stories high, the walls of stone and covered with wood, on which $7,000 were insured by us in the office of the Columbian Insurance Company of Alexandria on 9 April last, per policy No. 279, and which was destroyed by fire on the night of Saturday last, the 14th inst., we lost, or were damaged at least $12,000, exclusive of the contents of said mill. We are entirely ignorant of the circumstances which occasioned the fire, and we further certify that we have no other insurance, directly or indirectly on the aforesaid property, except the above mentioned."

"JOSEPH W. LAWRENCE. THOS. POINDEXTER, JR."

Page 27 U. S. 30

"Commonwealth of Virginia, Stafford County, to-wit: "

"Joseph W. Lawrence and Thomas Poindexter this day personally appeared before me, a justice of the peace for the said county, and made oath in due form that the above certificate contains the truth to the best of their knowledge and belief."

"MURRAY FORBES"

"I, Murray Forbes, a magistrate duly commissioned, in and for the County of Stafford and State of Virginia, do hereby certify that I am acquainted with Joseph W. Lawrence and Thomas Poindexter; that the fire originated in their mill burnt on the night of the 14th inst. by accident, or without fraud or design on their part, as far as I know or believe, and that the damage or loss they sustained by the said fire is at least $10,000. And I further certify that the said mill was not within thirty yards of any other building except a corn house, which was about twenty yards off."

"MURRAY FORBES"

The affidavits of Thomas Sedden and James Vasse, were annexed.

"I, Thomas Sedden, of the Town of Fredericksburg, in the County of Spottsylvania, and State of Virginia, do hereby certify that I am well acquainted with the mill called and known by the name of the Elba Mill, owned and occupied by Joseph W. Lawrence and Thomas Poindexter, situate on an island in the County of Stafford, about one mile from the Town of Fredericksburg; that the said mill was built of stone four stories high and covered with wood; that between ten and eleven o'clock on Saturday night, the 14th inst., I was alarmed by the cry of fire, which I soon ascertained to be the mill aforesaid; that I have since viewed the ruins, and am of opinion that it would require at least $10,000 to rebuild the same and restore the proprietors in the situation they were in previous to the said fire; that I have no knowledge or idea how the fire originated."

"THOMAS SEDDEN"

"Commonwealth of Virginia, Stafford County, to-wit: "

"Thomas Sedden this day personally appeared before me, one of the commonwealth's justices of the peace of the

Page 27 U. S. 31

county aforesaid, and made oath to the truth of the foregoing certificate signed by his hand."

"MURRAY FORBES"

"I, James Vasse, of the Town of Falmouth, in the County of Stafford and State of Virginia, do hereby certify that I am well acquainted with the mill called and known by the name of the Elba Mill, owned and occupied by Joseph W. Lawrence and Thomas Poindexter, situate on an island in the County of Stafford and about one mile from the Town of Fredericksburg; that the said mill was built of stone four stories high and covered with shingles; that between the hours of ten and eleven o'clock on Saturday night, the 14th current, I was alarmed by the cry of fire, which I soon ascertained to be the mill aforesaid; that I have since viewed the ruins, and I am of opinion that it will require the sum of $10,000 or thereabout to restore the proprietors to the situation they were in previous to the said fire; further, that I have no knowledge whatever how the fire originated."

"JAMES VASSE"

"Commonwealth of Virginia, Stafford County, to-wit: "

"James Vasse this day personally appeared before me, one of the commonwealth's justices of the peace of the county aforesaid and made oath to the truth of the foregoing certificate signed by his hand."

"MURRAY FORBES"

The plaintiff also gave in evidence the following extracts from the minutes of the proceedings of the insurance company in relation to the claim of payment for the loss.

"Friday, 20 February, 1824 -- Lawrence & Poindexter. Claim made by them this day by their attorney, Anthony Buck, with the policy and certificates of loss by fire, on policy No. 279."

"On the application of Anthony Buck, leave is given to Joseph W. Lawrence and Thomas Poindexter to assign to William J. Roberts policy No. 279, effected in this office, without prejudice to any defense which this office may have against the payment of the sum insured, or to the claim of John H. Ladd & Co. under their attachment heretofore served on the president of this company."

"Saturday, 13th March 1824 -- Ordered, That the Secretary

Page 27 U. S. 32

address a letter to John Scott to require the title of Lawrence & Poindexter to the Elba Mill."

"Thursday, 1 April, 1824 -- The following papers were this day received, to-wit, a letter from John Scott, Esq. Fredericksburg, covering copies of a deed from William and George Winchester to Joseph Howard and Joseph Lawrence; an agreement between Joseph Howard and Joseph Lawrence; and an agreement between Joseph Lawrence and Thomas Poindexter, Jr."

"Friday, 16 April, 1824 -- In the case of Lawrence & Poindexter, Ordered, that a copy of the mortgage to the banks, proof of the execution of the contract between Lawrence and Poindexter on the day it bears date, and a copy of the notes in the bank be required."

"Thursday, 22 April, 1824 -- Lawrence & Poindexter. The following papers were presented by R. I. Taylor, Esq. enclosed to him by Mr. John Scott, Fredericksburg -- Deed of trust from Joseph Howard and Mary his wife, and Joseph W. Lawrence, to William J. Roberts, for the benefit of the banks, dated 13 May, 1814."

An agreement between Joseph W. Lawrence and Thomas Poindexter, dated 28 November, 1822.

A copy of a note drawn by Howard & Lawrence, dated 10 March, 1824, to the Farmer's Bank of Virginia at Fredericksburg for $1,800.

A copy of another note, dated 5 March, 1824, drawn by the same, to the Bank of Virginia at Fredericksburg for $4,187.

"Saturday, 26 June, 1824 -- Walter Jones, esquire's opinion having been submitted to a called board this day, on motion of Mr. Mandeville, it was resolved that the claim of Lawrence & Poindexter be resisted, and that the secretary furnish them with a copy of this resolution."

"Wednesday, 11 November, 1824 -- Will the board now enter into a compromise with John Scott, Esq. for the claim of Lawrence & Poindexter on this office, it being perfectly understood that an agreement to enter into a compromise is not to be considered as an admission of the claim? Yes. "

Page 27 U. S. 33

"Thursday, 18 November, 1824 -- The board having duly considered the case of Lawrence & Poindexter, decline making any compromise at this time, and the secretary is directed to inform Mr. Scott of their determination."

"Friday, 10 December, 1824 -- A communication from John Scott, Esq., of Fredericksburg, was received, whereupon it was ordered that a board be called for tomorrow at twelve o'clock, to receive said John Scott's proposals for an arrangement in the case of Lawrence & Poindexter."

"Saturday, 11 December, 1824 -- On application of John Scott, Esq., it is agreed to receive propositions for an arrangement between John Scott and this office in the case of Lawrence and Poindexter without prejudice to either of the parties concerned. John Scott, Esq., has this day proposed to settle his claim against this office by receiving from them fifty cents in the dollar in full for said claim. Will the board now agree to pay said Scott fifty cents? They will not."

The opinion of Walter Jones, Esq. counsel of the defendants, referred to in the minutes, was as follows.

"Claim of Lawrence & Poindexter, as stated by the Columbian Insurance Company of Alexandria."

"An equitable title in general is doubtless an insurable interest against fire, but it seems that the interest in this case was so encumbered with liens and precedent conditions as to make the legal estate not worth the calling for on the part of the insured, whilst, on the other hand, their circumstances were such as in all probability to make any suit against them for a specific execution of the contract or for compensation for damages fruitless and unproductive, so that, to any practical effect or purpose, the insured were unable to call for the legal estate by performing the contract of sale, and consequently the vendor had no motive to throw the legal estate upon them by a compulsory execution of such contract. How the insurance may be affected by such a state of fact is a question entirely at large and undetermined by authority, and if there were any insurable interest, it might be matter of serious doubt, under the peculiar circumstances of the property and the parties, to what

Page 27 U. S. 34

degree the general terms in which the description of the estate to be insured is given, unlimited by any specification of the quality of the estate or of the value and quantity of the interest, involved misrepresentation or concealment."

"Whether in the description of a stone building covered with wood the gables be necessarily understood to be a part of the masonry is a question of art belonging to architects or housebuilders and depending upon the common use and understanding of the terms connected with that art. How upon these principles would a contract to build a house of brick or stone covered with wood be understood? Would the undertakers be bound to run up the gables with brick or stone? If that question be answered in the affirmative, as I am informed, and indeed have no doubt it should be, then the omission in this case to disclose the fact of timber gables is a concealment of a material fact, and the unqualified description given of a stone mill a material misrepresentation which avoids the policy."

"W. JONES"

The plaintiff also examined witnesses relative to the proceedings of the board, from which, as well as from the facts stated in the minutes, he claimed to infer that if there was a defect in the preliminary proof, the same had been waived by the representatives of the insurance company. This evidence, so far as it was by the court considered to affect or influence the law and merits of the case, is sufficiently set out in the opinion of the Court. After this and other testimony to the same effect had been given on the part of the plaintiff, the defendants' counsel objected to the admissibility, competency, and sufficiency of the same and of all or any of the facts thereby proved, admitting the same to be true as above stated, to entitle the plaintiffs to recover for the loss stated in the declaration and proved by the evidence, and the grounds of the said objections were specifically stated as follows:

1. That the interest claimed by the plaintiffs in the property insured, as disclosed by such evidence, was not at

Page 27 U. S. 35

the respective times of effecting the insurance, and of the happening of the loss, an insurable interest and property.

2. That it was not such an interest as is described in the original offer of the plaintiffs' agent for insurance, and in the policy, nor such as is averred in the declaration.

3. That the said documents, produced as preliminary proof of loss, do not import a fulfillment, on the part of the plaintiffs, with the terms and conditions upon which the loss is declared to be payable by the ninth of the said printed proposals or rules annexed to the policy.

And the counsel for the defendants thereupon prayed the opinion and direction of the court to the jury that the said evidence was not admissible, competent, and sufficient to be left to the jury as proof of the plaintiffs' title to recover for such loss in this action.

Which instruction the court refused to give, being of opinion

1. That the interest of the plaintiffs in the property insured, as disclosed by the said evidence, is a sufficient insurable interest to support the policy, and the averment of interest in the plaintiffs' declaration in this action.

2. That it is such an interest as is described in the original offer for insurance, and in the policy and in the declaration; and

3. That although the said certificate of Murray Forbes is not such a certificate as is required by the said ninth rule annexed to the said policy, yet the evidence aforesaid is admissible, competent, and sufficient to be left to the jury, and from which they may infer that the defendants waived the objection to the said certificate, and to the other preliminary proof aforesaid.

The counsel for the defendants below took a bill of exceptions to the refusal and opinion of the court.

The defendants then gave evidence of the nature and particulars of the property insured, that in a policy of insurance upon the same property by the Mutual Insurance Society of Virginia, Lawrence & Poindexter had described the property differently, stating it to be "covered with wood; gable ends of the roof of wood;" that Lawrence & Poindexter

Page 27 U. S. 36

were insolvent, and that the property had greatly depreciated in value; that the title to the property was embarrassed, and litigated in chancery; that the property thus encumbered was not worth the purchase, and that the assured were unable to comply with their agreements to pay for the same or to respond in damages for the breach thereof.

The plaintiff also produced evidence to show that it was the usual practice of the country to build the gable end of brick, or stone mills of wood, and that a mill so constructed had been insured by the Mutual Insurance Society, described in the same terms used in the policy upon which this suit was brought.

Whereupon the defendants prayed the opinion of the court and its instruction to the jury that if the said contracts between Howard and Lawrence, and between Lawrence and Poindexter, have not been performed on either side, and if, from the actual state and condition of the title, and the value of the property bargained for between Howard and Lawrence, and between Lawrence and Poindexter in the said contracts, and from the circumstances of the parties, the said contracts between the said parties could not have been specifically performed, or effectually enforced on either side, so as to have vested the legal estate pursuant to said contracts, or to have vested in said Lawrence & Poindexter an equitable estate, with a right to call for the legal estate, and that the said contracts between the said parties were not practically available, but were, as to the practical intent and purpose which they purported an intent to effectuate, incapable of being executed; then the said Lawrence & Poindexter had not, at the time of the said insurance and of the said loss, such as interest in the said mill as to entitle them or either of them to recover in this action for the loss averred in the declaration and proved by the evidence.

Which instruction the court refused, being of opinion that it would leave a question of law to the jury, viz., whether, under the circumstances therein stated, the said parties therein mentioned, or either of them, could be compelled

Page 27 U. S. 37

specifically to perform the agreements therein mentioned, and because the court is of opinion that under the circumstances stated in the said evidence, the plaintiffs had, at the time of effecting the insurance and at the time of the loss, an insurable interest in the said mill.

Whereupon the defendants prayed the opinion of the court and its instruction to the jury that in order to verify the description of the property insured as given in the policy, it is necessary that the whole of the exterior walls of the mill house, upon which the roof or covering rests, from the foundation to the top of the roof should be of stone, and that if the plan of the said house were such as that two of the exterior walls terminated in upright gable ends, run up perpendicularly from the eaves to the top of the roof, and sloping at the same angle as the pitch of the roof, such gable ends not properly forming, according to the ordinary rules and terms of architecture, a part of the covering or roof, it was necessary, to verify the said description, that such gable ends should have been of stone, and if, in point of fact, such gable ends, as well as the covering or roof were of wood, which, under any circumstances of actual conflagration, might have increased either the risk of catching fire, or the difficulty of extinguishing or stopping the progress of fire once commenced, it amounted to a material misrepresentation, and avoids the policy, and it is not material whether the said misrepresentation was willful and fraudulent, or from ignorance and without design, nor whether the actual loss was produced by such misrepresentation or by having gable ends of wood instead of stone.

Which instruction the court refused, being of opinion that it was competent for the jury, from all the facts given in evidence, to decide whether, in order to verify the said description in the said policy, it was necessary that the whole of the exterior walls, from the foundation to the top of the roof, should be of stone.

And being also of opinion that under the first of the rules annexed to the said policy and referred to therein, no variation in the description of the property insured from the

Page 27 U. S. 38

true description thereof, not made fraudulently, would vitiate the policy unless by reason of such variation the insurance was made at a lower premium than would otherwise have been demanded.

The defendants then proved by James Sanderson, the witness before sworn and examined on the part of the plaintiff, that in making the insurance aforesaid, the defendants were not governed by the said printed rates of premium, and did not insure the said mill as a building under the class No. 4 of the said printed rates, though the same premium therein indicated was charged, but that the board, in its discretion, fixed the premium as for an extra risk, considering the frequent accidents to mills, from the circumstance of millers being in the habit of grinding all night, and if the insurers had understood the mill to have been built with wooden instead of stone gable ends, it would have been at their discretion to have charged a higher premium, or to have declined the risk. And the plaintiff's counsel, having argued to the jury upon the presumed authority of the court's opinion upon the second of the aforesaid instructions, moved by the counsel for the defendants and overruled as aforesaid, that the misrepresentation of the class of the building insured, if found by the jury to be such as above objected on the part of defendants, did not vitiate or avoid the policy, either as a breach of warranty or misrepresentation, unless it had been designedly and fraudulently made, or had induced the defendants to insure at a lower premium than they would otherwise have done, and that in fact the insurance was done at the maximum rate indicated by the said printed rates.

The counsel for the defendants thereupon prayed the opinion of the court and an instruction to the jury that if the jury find from the evidence that the materials and description of the mill for the destruction of which this loss is claimed, as it actually existed at the time of insurance, differed from the representation of the same made by the plaintiffs or their agents at the time of effecting the said insurance in this: that the walls at the two ends of the building,

Page 27 U. S. 39

all the way from the eaves to the top of the roof, constituting what are commonly called the gable ends, were constructed of wood instead of stone, and that the risk from fire was greater with such wooden gable ends than if they had been constructed of stone; it ought to be deemed a material misrepresentation, and avoids the policy, whether such misrepresentation proceeds from fraud or casual inadvertence in the assured, and, in such case, it is not necessary for the defendants to prove further, that a higher premium would have been charged, if a true and accurate representation of the building had been made; nor does it vary the effect of such misrepresentation, that the highest rate of premium stated in the said printed rates, was actually charged for the said insurance.

Which instruction the court refused to give for the following reason: that under the first of the rules annexed to the said policy and referred to therein, no variation in the description of the property insured from the true description thereof, not made fraudulently, would vitiate the policy unless by reason of such variation the insurance was made at a lower premium than would otherwise have been demanded.

Whereupon the defendants prayed the opinion of the court and its instruction to the jury that the said J. W. Lawrence, as the survivor of the said Lawrence & Poindexter, if entitled, upon the principles aforesaid, to recover anything in this action is not entitled to recover anything more than a moiety of the said loss. Which instruction the court also refused, and the defendants excepted.

Page 27 U. S. 42

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